1. Know where you are and what kind of wine list it has.
Depending on whether you are eating at a chain restaurant, local casual place or a place that has an ethnic specialty, the wine lists are going to look different.
National chains, as a general rule, offer small lists with bottles that can be purchased at retail for less than $10 and really aren’t that great. If there are no vintages listed for any of the wines, it’s likely a low-quality list, meaning they can keep the same wines for years on end without having to reprint the menu. Once you learn to recognize these lists you may also learn which one or two are acceptable.
White wine is the best choice at a chain restaurant. It is harder to make low-quality red wine taste as good than low-quality white, so when high-quality options are limited, white wine is the safer bet.
Local places are also likely to have small lists, but because they don’t have to offer the same wines at all national chain locations, and the proprietor will have tasted and chosen each wine on the list, you’re more likely to have higher quality options. Not only are these my favorite kind of restaurants in general, but my favorite kind of wine lists. It’s hard to go wrong, just pick according to your style and taste preferences.
Establishments with extensive lists are also going to employ professionals to help you. Wait for the sommelier (or ask for him) to help you pick the right wine for your tastes and budget.
2. Decide what you are going to eat first.
I know this can be hard because waitstaff often come around and ask for drink orders first, but wine affects how your food tastes and vice versa. The exception is if you decide you want a glass of wine to kick off the meal, as an aperitif. I prefer a glass of bubbly for this. Prosecco, which is Italian sparkling wine, is often on wine lists. Order it and I’m confident it’ll be tasty and economical.
3. Match your wine to your food.
Without getting too far into wine pairing (that’s another post!), wine can absolutely detract from the flavors of your food, or enhance them. On the highest level, I follow the “When in Rome” rule: at an Italian restaurant, order Italian wine; French place, French wine, and so on. For example, at an Italian place I’ll frequently order Barbera, medium-bodied red wine, which is a great food wine.
Other general guidelines I tend to follow: ordering chicken, salad or a light fish, I opt for white wine. Within white wine, I go from light to heavy, depending on the heaviness of the accompaniments. For example, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio for light dishes, Chardonnay or Pinto Gris for something heavier or with cream based sauces. Tomatoes in your dish? Opt for Zinfandel (called Primitivo if it’s Italian made). Ordering steak or a burger, get Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. Pinot Noir goes great with Salmon. Spicy food (like Asian), goes great with something with a bit of residual sugar. Dry wine can taste really bland if your food is spicy, so I like to get something like a German Riesling. (See if you can find something labeled as Kabinett, which means off-dry. It will be low in alcohol too, around 7-8%).
4. Know when to order a beer or cocktail.
This goes back to knowing where you are. I don’t believe I’ve ever ordered a glass of wine in a Mexican restaurant. Not that it isn’t offered and that there aren’t things that go, but my preference is always for a Margarita. There are also restaurants that specialize, such as having quality beers on tap or a specialty cocktail menu. In these situations, the wine list will take a back seat and you’ll enjoy your beverage more if you don’t get wine.
5. Know how many glasses the table anticipates.
It is always cheaper to buy a whole bottle, which contains about 4 glasses of wine. As a bonus, many restaurants offer a larger variety of wines by the bottle than by the glass, so you get more choice! If you and your dining companion can agree on a wine, ordering a bottle is the way to go, and when dining with two couples or a group, it would be crazy not to go the bottle route.
6. Ask for help or recommendations.
After I started writing this post, I went out with my husband for a date night. I tried to approach the wine lists (we had appetizers at a wine bar, then our meal at an Italian place) as a novice who had read these tips. At the wine bar I asked the server about a wine I hadn’t had before but seemed intriguing. As a result, I got a little taste before I committed to a full glass.
Even as a more knowledgeable wine drinker, I ask questions all the time, especially at our local haunts. A limited, but curated, list mean your server has tried them all and can let you know what will go best with your dinner choice. Getting a small taste is common too! Don’t ever feel so intimidated that you don’t ask for help. Even more experienced wine drinkers don’t know every wine and winery, so odds are you’ll see things unfamiliar to you.